In the great cultural divide, a struggle between knowledge and world views

Posted February 24th, 2012 in Blog, Featured 2 Comments »

Fostering Ecological Hope
Reflections on Culture and Meaning

Some provocative thoughts to share this snowy morning in Milwaukee. The other day I read this rather disturbing essay, posted by Alternet and written by Chris Mooney, whose new book, The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science – and Reality, is due out in April. Disturbing why? Because it explains how the research shows that not all the rational, reasonable, scientifically based arguments in all the world will convince people whose world view conflicts with that science that the science, not the world view, is correct. Climate change is the example being studied here, the question of why resistance to its unfolding seems to be getting stronger among Republicans even as the science becomes more certain.

Disturbing to say the least, it appears that the more educated the Republican, the stronger the denial. “…if anything, knowledge and intelligence seemed to be worsening matters.”

“…here’s the mind-blowing surprise: For Republicans, having a college degree didn’t appear to make one any more open to what scientists have to say. On the contrary, better-educated Republicans were more skeptical of modern climate science than their less educated brethren. Only 19 percent of college-educated Republicans agreed that the planet is warming due to human actions, versus 31 percent of non-college-educated Republicans.”

Now I’m just reporting here, not making a partisan statement, but studies show the opposite for Democrats – the more education they have, the more they believe in climate change. In other words, they are convinced by the facts.

“Again and again, Republicans or conservatives who say they know more about the topic, or are more educated, are shown to be more in denial, and often more sure of themselves as well—and are confident they don’t need any more information on the issue. Tea Party members appear to be the worst of all.”

I guess that last point shouldn’t surprise anyone. The Tea Party is a great example of people creating a movement around themselves that reinforces a world view. Helps, too, when your movement is funded by billionaires like the Koch brothers who can ensure that your world view is all over social and cable media. The Kochs, and people like my freshman millionaire plastics-manufacturing Senator Ron Johnson, also a fervent follower of Ayn Rand, pour a lot of resources into shoring up the world views that protect their interests, including the strange universe of the global warming deniers.

But I’m left with the question: so, then, where do we go from here?

What I want to put alongside this research is an essay by Fritjof Capra posted on the website of the Center for Ecoliteracy, entitled, The New Facts of Life. This is a great overview of systems thinking, perceiving reality not by way of isolated parts, but rather as interrelating dynamics of life and energy that run all through creation, including societies and cultures. Everything is related to everything else and everything we do has an impact through the web of existence, and everything occurring in that web impacts us as well. This includes political events and natural calamities which are all involved with one another.

Understanding the ecological whole is crucial if we are to understand the nature of our predicament and what we need to do to address it in ways commensurate with the scale of the looming crisis.

The reason I put these two essays together here is that what Mooney describes and what Capra describes hold an extreme tension. Capra writes about what science is revealing to us; Mooney writes about why this will not make a difference in our cultural divide. Capra says we need to know more, be more educated, understand better the dynamics of all these interrelations – in other words, become ecologically literate – while Mooney suggests that this may well be counter-productive in terms of trying to win the argument on climate change and human survival.

Then this from a paper published by the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire, entitled, Climate Change: Partisanship, Understanding and Public Opinion, by Lawrence C. Hamilton:

“Most people gather information about climate change not directly from scientists but indirectly, for example through news media, political activists, acquaintances, and other non-science sources. Their understanding reflects not simply scientific knowledge, but rather the adoption of views promoted by political or opinion leaders they follow. People increasingly choose news sources that match their own views. Moreover, they tend to selectively absorb information even from this biased flow, fitting it into their pre-existing beliefs.”

World views trump knowledge. And once we have a world view, we go to the sources that will affirm and strengthen it, whether or not it matches reality. Capra writes:

“In the coming decades, the survival of humanity will depend on our ecological literacy – our ability to understand the basic principles of ecology and to live accordingly. This means that ecoliteracy must become a critical skill for politicians, business leaders, and professionals in all spheres, and should be the most important part of education at all levels – from primary and secondary schools to colleges, universities, and the continuing education and training of professionals.

“We need to teach our children, our students, and our corporate and political leaders, the fundamental facts of life…”

But, sadly, we know that resistance to this kind of education is fierce and is likely to grow more fierce the more urgent the ecological crisis. Can you imagine even starting a conversation about such an educational turn within the political realm, in policy circles where corporate money and fundamentalist religious orthodoxies hold dominion? Education for ecological literacy would challenge both powerful corporations and their financiers and those orthodoxies in the extreme.

What to do? I don’t have an answer yet, but it certainly causes me to rethink how we approach those who resist seeing the human species within the larger web of our ecosystems, whether in space across the planet now or in time across the history of evolution. If facts don’t challenge a world view, what does? And if one of the greatest threats to the knowledge we need for our survival is our ability to retreat now into the virtual technological and cultural spaces in which our world views are only reinforced, separate from those who might challenge them with knowledge – well, how do we cross that chasm towards creating an ecologically sustainable human existence, which implies vast changes in our economic, ecological, political, social, and ethical lives?

Or will disasters and collapses need to be our culture’s teachers? If not knowledge and science, and if we hope to avoid the worst in terms of ecological calamity, is there any other approach that might work? Or are we doomed by our brain functions, and the bifurcation and fragmentation of the political culture (which is being exploited and manipulated by powerful interests), to continue talking past each other as we continue on this disastrous course?

These are good questions, even crucial. We are living in a world of tumultuous change – in nature, climate, cultures, energy, politics, social mores, and on and on. Yet many are clinging to world views that no longer function or reflect reality (this goes as well for many of the ‘old left’ who still operate out of old paradigms emerging from Marxist-Leninist thought). Reality is still being made to fit into those views, literally stuffed into them, so that people don’t feel their world being rocked.

But it is being rocked. And now we have this question about whether this species is able to adapt, or whether these very brains of ours that are supposedly an evolutionary advance will become our worst enemy by hardening and stultifying.

How do we loosen up these brain cells, make them flexible and open, so that we can receive the knowledge we need to adapt those brains and our lives to the truth of who we are within the web of life – before the unraveling of that web becomes irreversible?

Your reflections are welcome.

by Margaret Swedish




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2 Responses

  1. ron landskroner

    Excellent essay, Margaret. Here is my response.

    This essay might be used as fuel for fire in arguing about how the problem are thick-headed Republican climate change deniers. However, dilemma goes far beyond that small cadre of Lilliputian-size political brains. It is merely a symptom of a much larger denial on the part of all humans, no matter their political, ethnic, religious stripe or nationality. And it is not exclusive to denial about this one specific, albeit hugely important, issue. Rather, it goes to the heart of how humans have chosen to distance themselves from natural systems and processes while conveniently (up till now) divorcing themselves from any culpability regarding not only a rapidly transformed climate, but deteriorating ecosystems, radically changed or disappearing habitats, mass extinctions, the speed and extent of which is unprecedented during the time humans have existed on the planet.

  2. Niki Yanakou

    Hi Margaret,

    Ive watched some broadcasts on C-SPAN of Young Republicans meetings held on college campuses. These meetings are held at many campuses around the country. Their itinerary always includes a rant on the “hoax of climate change”. Is it any wonder that they so vehemently oppose the idea of climate change?